Virgin's Insanely Complicated New Traffic Management Shows What's Wrong With ISPs

By Chris Mills on at

Virgin isn't exactly a student of laissez-faire broadband, instead choosing to actively 'traffic-manage' its customers. It's just rolled out a new system of traffic management, and whilst it leads to some theoretically marginal improvements for consumers, it's the most complicated sonofabitch you're ever gonna see. But more than that, it's a demonstration of how out-of-touch some ISPs really are.

The good news? Peak traffic management is down to 40 per cent from 50 per cent; peak times have been cut (removing the 10am-3pm 'peak' Antiques Roadshow-watching time on weekdays); and the total amount of stuff you can download in peak times has gone up.

The bad news? All of this information is contained within a giant spreadsheet, with different tiers of traffic management, different thresholds per tier, different limits for uploads and downloads, and no help from Virgin to make neither heads nor tails of it.

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As far as we can work out (though this could be entirely wrong, and entirely the product of a woefully over-caffeinated brain): during peak times (4pm-11pm weekdays, 11am-11pm weekends), there's an hourly download threshold, the size of which depends on your broadband package. If you exceed that threshold, you're put into traffic management for an hour, which throttles your usage by 30 per cent. If, during your hour of traffic management, you exceed the threshold once again (and ha, gotchya again, it's a slightly different threshold for your second hour), you're stuck in traffic management until the end of peak time, with your usage throttled by 40 per cent.

So yeah, not exactly simple. Virgin claims that traffic management only affects "2.3 per cent" of its users at the moment, and it "expects that figure to remain the same" after the changes. I'm sorry, but that sounds like total bull. To put it in perspective, anyone downloading a game or big film during the peak hours -- which, let's be honest, are pretty much the only hours working folk spend at home whilst awake -- will get booted into traffic management, even if they're not 'heavy users'. I'm willing to bet that'll be more than 2.3 per cent.

And even if the traffic management doesn't affect the majority of customers, it's still a worry. Traffic management and caps and thresholds generally make people overly cautious about hitting limits, which is why networks and ISPs find that only a few people run into data limits -- it's not because people don't want to use the internet, but because they're worried about gobbling up too much data and hitting limits.

Virgin's plans most likely make this worse, because confronted with something that they don't understand -- and to be honest, I've seen far simpler tax codes -- consumers will err on the side of caution, using less data (which Virgin will inevitably triumph as a 'success' when the next round of speed data comes in from the telecoms regulator).

Virgin's answer to this seems brutally out of touch. Joe Lathan, the broadband head honcho, told me just this morning that Virgin's service is, "to all intents and purposes, completely unlimited" -- an absurd statement when you've got hourly thresholds on the amount of data that can be downloaded. His solution to the problem of downloading single, large files (like games)? "Schedule them up at 'midnight', or before you go off to work."

That completely misses the point of forking out for expensive fibre-optic broadband. Queuing up downloads, or staying up late at night to set them in action, is a legacy of the copper-cabled ADSL days; the beauty of high-speed internet is the ability to plonk down on the sofa, choose a game, and start playing it 20 minutes later. Equally, having to fret over exactly how much you've downloaded -- hardly helped by Virgin's madhat-accountant-spreadsheet of a system -- ruins the magic of high-speed internet.

It's a message that some providers are actually starting to grasp. BT, for all its flaws, recently busted open its high-end Infinity packages, so there's no data caps or traffic shaping at all. BT's rationale, according to the Director of Broadband, was consumer-driven -- BT had the spare capacity, "a large segment of consumers were asking for it", so it said "hell, why not".

Now, Sky's network (and possibly Virgin's), suffers from over-subscription, so there's a justification for traffic management (or data thresholds). But for the love of God, make the restrictions simple, fair, and above all else, aim for unlimited service. Obviously, with the consumer demand for bandwidth blasting through every ceiling, we're going to suffer slow-downs while the internet service providers catch up. But to claim that traffic-managed services are "unlimited" -- Virgin also claim that "you can do more with our network than any of our competitors", by the way -- is insulting, and just plain wrong.

Image credit: Sad girl from Shutterstock

Update: In response to the article above, Virgin sent us this statement to clarify things a bit:

"Our 100Mb customers receive speeds up to 104.6Mb, proven by Ofcom, and even if you're one of the 2.3 per cent of heavy users we sometimes, temporarily traffic manage you'll be receiving speeds of around 60Mb -- so you can download and stream as much as you like. Today's update makes it more flexible and responsive to how people are using our services and is designed to reduce the time customers may spend in traffic management, it could be just one hour. We do not have caps, nor do we charge customers more."